HAVERHILL — John Katsaros was working at Katsaros Brothers Market on Emerson Street with his brother when the news came over the radio that the Japanese had bombed the American naval base at Pearl Harbor.
"I called my parents and they asked me where Hawaii was," Katsaros said. He told them it was somewhere in the Pacific.
"We were all shocked," Katsaros said. "The next day we were in school and President Roosevelt made a speech — which we listened to in the auditorium — saying this was a date which will live in infamy."
Salvatore Pauta of Lawrence was at his family home on Summer Street when the news of the bombing came over the radio. He'd graduated the spring of 1941 from Lawrence High School and in 1942, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, he chose to join the U.S. Navy and became an electrician.
"We all understood that our country was at war and I had to protect my country," he said. "All the guys I knew all wanted to serve their country."
On this 78th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Katsaros, 96, Pauta, 97, and other veterans are reflecting on where they were on that fateful Sunday and the impact it had on them and the lives of so many other Americans.
"On Monday they let us out of school early and a bunch of us went to the Post Office and I wanted to join the Naval Air Cadet program and learn to fly," Katsaros said.
There were so many people looking to join that they were told to come back the next day.
Katsaros joined the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
After graduating from Haverhill High School, Class of 1942, he was sent to Florida for military training, hoping he would become a Navy pilot fighting the Japanese in the Pacific.
After flunking an eye test, however, he was accepted into the Army Air Corps and trained as an aerial engineer, photographer and gunner.
"I was stationed in England," said Katsaros, who went on to serve with the legendary Eighth Air Force, bombing Germany in high-altitude runs in 1943 and 1944.
In March 1944, his B-17 bomber Man O’ War was shot out of the sky while returning from its 11th mission, targeting an aircraft factory in Frankfurt. Two comrades, the top turret and the tail turret gunners, were killed. Katsaros was wounded.
Karsaros and five crew mates bailed out and landed in France, although one died after his chute failed to deploy. It was the start of a harrowing journey that Katsaros tells in his book, "Code Burgundy: The Long Escape."
Katsaros said his brother Sotiris, a teacher at Haverhill High, joined the military, too. Another brother, Charles, joined after the war when he was old enough. His brother George, he said, was unable to pass the physical because he lost an eye as a boy.
Katsaros said that for the past 10 years, he's been asked by one group or another to give a talk on or around Pearl Harbor Day.
"I gave a talk on Thursday night for members of the Civil Air Patrol in Nashua about how young people of the day quit school to join the military," he said.
He said he talked to them about freedom, too.
"When the war ended," he said, "we were free of the Nazis and of Japanese imperialists."
Come Dec. 10, Katsaros will be traveling to Germany and to Bastone, Belgium, as a representative of the 8th Army Air Force for the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge.
Pauta served four years on the USS Winooski, an oil tanker that resupplied war ships.
"We were involved in a lot of battles, but kept our distance as we had to refuel those ships," he said.
He said his parents were proud to have a son in the Navy and that he was brought up to respect and honor his country.
"This is your land and you must defend it," he said.
According to Lawrence Veterans Services Director Jamie Melendez, who served in the U.S. Army for 25 years, our nation is losing its World War II veterans at a rate of about 300 per day.
"We must try to save their stories and archive them for future generations of Americans," he said. "Who knows if we'll ever see something like World War II again, where a society came together for a common purpose, and that was to fight the axis of evil."